Europe’s Inner Demons

If you take a tram out of Vienna and climb to the top of the Leopoldsberg, you can see a series of memorials to the successful defence of Vienna in 1683 against the invading Ottomans. Looking out over the Danube to the East, you can see an awful lot of not very much at all, going on and on and on. It’s from these empty eastern spaces that the threat to Europe always seems somehow to appear. From the Mongols through the Turks to the Slavs, it’s always the same basic fear. Civilisation as we know it can’t really be guaranteed east of a line drawn roughly between Berlin and Vienna. Beyond lies barbarism, changing in its details, but always a menace that has to be met with military force. It’s not an accident that the medieval Teutonic Knights, who fought the heathens in what is now Poland and the Baltic States, were role-models for extreme nationalists in Germany, including the Nazis. And they served right up to the present day as inspiration for extreme right-wing nationalists in Europe as a whole, some of whom are probably not coming back from Ukraine. And it’s probably not a coincidence either, that the great economic threats to Europe—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China—are all in the East.

The enemy has mutated over the centuries, just like the nature of the civilisation we believed we had to defend. The Teutonic Knights thought they were fighting for European Christian civilisation against savage pagans. At other times, it’s been Christian against Muslim, Catholic against Orthodox, the Enlightenment against repressive absolute monarchy, the Aryans against the Slavic hordes, civilisation against barbarism, and more recently Democracy against Communism, as well as many variations and combinations of all of those. What persists, though, is a belief in the vile and degraded nature of the eternal enemy. They are Not Like Us. They are wild, savage, uncivilised people, often driven by an alien and frightening ideology like Islam or Communism. Atrocity stories about them are endlessly recycled, century after century, and if some of them have a basis in fact, facts themselves were never the issue for those who pedalled them.

The end of the Cold War should, in theory, have put an end to this sense of dread once and for all. After all, didn’t we have a new Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, as the saying went? The reason it didn’t has a lot to do with the endemic disunity and division of Europe itself. After all, to go back to 1683 for a moment, the rivalry between the French Crown and the Empire (which sort of mutated into Franco-German rivalry much later) meant that Louis XIV did nothing to help the defenders of Vienna, and indeed would have been happy to see them defeated, just as his father sided with the Protestants against the Empire during the Thirty Years War. The political, cultural and ideological rifts, which led to much unpleasantness in the twentieth century, were only ever really put aside in the face of the perception of an existential threat from the East, and not always, even then. You can argue that the Second World War was a case in point: the Germans were only the largest part of a twenty-nation coalition which fought as far as the suburbs of Moscow. Some countries (Italy, Hungary, Rumania) sent official contingents to join the Wehrmacht: others (notably Spain and Belgium) sent tens of thousands of volunteers. Around half a million other foreigners, mainly from “Nordic” countries, fought in the ranks of the Waffen-SS, for Western Christian civilisation, against the godless hordes of Communism. Yet of course, in many of these countries there were also strong anti-Nazi resistance forces as well, and the tension between the two boiled over into open civil war in Greece, and might have done so in Italy and France, where there were strong Communist Parties, who had played important roles in the Resistance.

To some extent, these cultural, ideological and political tensions were sublimated during the Cold War, through the fear of another round, this time with the Soviet Union in the lead. Yet the outcome was an essentially negative posture. The ideology of the time was anti-communism, rather than anything positive: inescapable for political and military groupings that had to somehow cater for both openly Fascist Portugal and Social-Democratic Norway. That said, there were some vague points of commonality. Religion was still a factor (the first moves towards a united Europe explicitly invoked the history of the Holy Roman Empire), most political systems were based on a broad consensus around mass political parties, full employment and prosperity as necessary, if recent unfortunate events were not to be repeated. By the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the signature of the Maastricht Treaty, all of that had come undone, and the blast of neoliberalism was starting to upend societies, communities and economic stability.

For the first time in history (if we count 1941-5 as an aberration) Europe was expanding eastward, rather than fearing attack from that direction. But what was “Europe” in this context? What did it represent? What was being offered to the new states that might join the EU or NATO, apart from money? In the case of the EU, at least, the offer was only a series of normative abstractions. It would have been possible to draw on Europe’s enormously rich heritage of history and culture, and its Classical and Christian roots. It would have been possible to construct a judicious synthesis of all of this, an attractive amalgam for the citizens of the new Europe to identify with, and others to envy. But it was all too difficult, and in any event the political mood of the times was against it. Rather than a synthesis, what emerged was a kind of grey Euro-sludge, typified by the anonymous Euro banknotes, much as if the national dishes of all of the countries had been mixed together and rendered down into a paste. In place of history and culture, Europe offered technocratic abstractions: regular elections, multi-party systems, separation of powers, human rights legislation … all very laudable, but not ideas that anyone would fight to defend, let alone die for. It’s not surprising that some saw the progress of the Union as analogous to the affirmation of the Church as a temporal power, in the struggle against the Holy Roman Empire.

In the absence of a perceived foreign enemy for the first time, Europe tried to make enemies out of ideas and abstractions. Nationalism was bad, extremism was bad, something called “autocracy” was bad, something called “populism” was bad, discrimination was bad. And so on. Like the medieval Papacy, Europe was largely obsessed with an internal ideological and normative struggle against its “inner demons,” in Norman Cohn’s famous phrase, and its own heretics. (You could be burned at the stake, after all, for doubting the doctrine of the Real Presence: many were.) You can’t fight abstractions, now or then, only those who you say support them. Just as you couldn’t “fight communism” in the Cold War, but only imprison or kill those you identified as communists, so you can’t “fight discrimination”; you can only personally target individuals you disapprove of. So if the old fault lines of Europe, between the religious and the secular, tradition and modernism, democracy and elite rule, had become blurred almost to invisibility, new ones appeared; but less anchored to communities and territories, more abstract and ideological. In effect, Europe was fighting itself, as of course it had regularly done throughout history, when not confronted with a foreign enemy.

The situation resembled the build-up of pressure in a container. If we accept the interpretation of politics as dependent upon the interaction of forces, then it’s clear the build-up of centripetal pressure in Europe had already reached the point where it threatened to burst the European container. There was already a dormant civil war brewing between technocratic European elites with their bloodless, managerial supranationalist agenda, and the practical concerns of ordinary people and traditional communities. There have been comparable tensions before, and to some extent, the last time they appeared, they were bled off in the form of colonial wars. It’s not an accident that the decades of peace in Europe from 1870 to 1914 were also the decades of colonialism, nor that revolutions and civil wars broke out immediately after (even during) a Great War that settled nothing.

The French anthropologist René Girard developed a theory of “mimetic violence,” in which internal tensions within a society will naturally escalate towards apocalyptic violence unless a mutually acceptable scapegoat can be found, whose killing will temporarily bring a de-escalation of mimetic competition. Interestingly, his final work was a book on Clausewitz, in which he argued that Clausewitz had, in the first chapter of On War foreseen the escalation of conflict into total apocalypse if it was allowed to get out of control. From the viewpoint of 2007, Girard argued that it was possible that this process was already under way, leading potentially to “an end to Europe, to the western world, and the world as a whole.” The tension between the attempt to create a bland, constricting, homogenous Europe where everyone is exactly alike, and the human desire of individuals to be different, has created the kind of unbearable tension that Girard was describing. We’ve seen what these internal tensions can lead to, most recently in the mutual hate-fest that is the management of the Covid crisis. For the moment, these tensions and the hate they engendered has been externalised against Russia and Russians. But that’s not going to last. Who’s next? What’s next?

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